We all want our kids to be the best that they can be. But finding the balance between Major Dad and June Cleaver isn't easy. Since the Armed Forces is known for converting undisciplined individuals into disciplined soldiers, we borrowed some expertise from Major Scott Buhmann. Professor of Military Science of the U.S. Army and director of Wheaton College's ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corp) program, Buhmann is also the father of five young children. We asked him to tell us the secrets to fostering good discipline. We also asked a civilian, John Townsend, co-author of Boundaries with Kids (Zondervan), to comment on why the military's principles work so well.
1. Lead by example.
As a parent and a military leader, I try to develop character in both my kids and my students, but you can't develop character in others if you are not a person of character yourself. I can't expect honesty and selflessness from others if I am dishonest, lazy, and self-centered. There is a structure in the ROTC called the Seven Army Values that shape our character. It's an acronym that spells LEADERSHIP:
When you are a Major in the Army, your position alone can make you seem right even when you are wrong. That's why you need the character to step back and admit when you're wrong. At home I have to apologize to my kids when I mess up and admit that I didn't handle things well.
The parent needs to be what he or she is teaching. We can't develop in a child what we don't first possess. This is incentive for getting deeply involved in spiritual growth, for your own sake as well as your child's. Character is the main focal point of parenting. We define character as that set of abilities needed to meet the demands of life. It includes the ability to connect emotionally, take responsibility, and live in reality.
2. Expect discipline and obedience to be the norm.
In the Army, we take an oath that says the President has reposed special trust and confidence in us. Society holds us to a different standard. They don't want people who have access to weapons and privileged knowledge to not have discipline and obedience as the organizational norm. With my family, I don't command military discipline but self-discipline to do the right thing even when no one else is looking. I also ask my children to be obedient to the Lord by following biblical mandates such as honoring your mother and father.
Hebrews 12:11 says, "no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." We know what the payoff is if we remain consistent and strong in our discipline. The payoff manifests all sorts of good things in a child, like restraint, respect, patience, and focus.
3. Clearly communicate expectations, boundaries, and consequences.
My cadets are presented with Military Professionalism and Appearance Codes that dictate punctuality, proper uniform requirements and preparation, preparedness and responsible behavior toward duty. If a cadet looks slovenly, is late, or not dependable, or is not a good team player or a trailer that we are constantly having to pull around, then he is not the type of leader I am trying to produce. There is a letter of professionalism that states all the consequences to these disciplines. Children, however, are not furnished with written expectations and depend on daily nurturing and consistent direction. Boundaries and consequences need to be clear. If they cross those boundaries accidentally or in childish irresponsibility, I will pull them back in. But if it is through willful disobedience, then there will be consequences. If a mistake becomes a pattern, it's no longer a mistake.
These concepts are critical for character building in children. They form a structure of required behavior and attitude for the child. Children are not born with the fruit of self-control (Gal. 5:23) inside of them. They need an external structure that they can experience over time, so that it becomes internalized, and actually a part of themselves. It is the same process that God takes his people through. The expectations convey his desires for our lives (Matt. 6:33); the boundaries form parameters over what is not acceptable (Exodus 20); and the consequences, while preserving our freedom, allow us to experience the reality of irresponsibility so that we learn from it (Gal. 6:7).
4. It's not about fairness.
With my cadets, fairness isn't much of an issue because we have codified standards that if a student meets the standard, he is rewarded. If he fails, he can't pass. But in the confines of my home, I have learned to agree with the words, "That's not fair." Each child in our family abides by the same underlying principles, but each child is also unique and requires personal treatment.
I tell them, "We are aiming for a goal in your personal development that will be reached at your own pace. I will mentor and guide you through it. There will be times when I push you and times when I pull you, but I am trying my best to get you to where I think you need to go. That doesn't always mean you are treated the same as someone else in the family."
When a child demands a "just universe," she is in trouble. Parents need to help kids with the reality that bad things happen to good people and vice versa, so that they can adapt to the way things really are. Processes such as forgiveness and grief are central in learning this (Eccles. 7:2-4).
5. Let them be all they can be.
I know that God has given each of my students certain gifts and abilities and I want them to exercise those gifts. There are people who have obvious abilities who are clearly not using them and others who live each day to their utmost potential. One student's potential may not be nearly as good as the student who is Mr. Everything. The student who keeps trying shows character. And character is a choice. We can choose to be selfless or self-centered, to exercise integrity or go the easy way, to have the moral courage to stand-up when things are wrong or not to intervene. Character can overcome many problems or it can keep you from exercising your full potential.
Children need to be developed to see their lives not just in the present, but to look at the future also. They need to see that God has plans for them (Jer. 29:11), and that those plans require their own maturity and skill-building in the tasks of life. The best way to help a child develop her potential for tomorrow, however, is to challenge her today, in those areas that are important.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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